When Jean-Michel Basquiat was growing up in Brooklyn, he drew on the floor while his music-loving father played jazz and classical records. “So for him, observes curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais, the hand made art while the ear listened to music from an early age.
The inextricable link between the visual and the auditory in Basquiat’s work is the subject of an exhibition opening this month at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. See strong: Basquiat and music is the first museum exhibition to offer an in-depth exploration of the musical references and performance history of the Neo-Expressionist painter, who died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27.
The exhibition will examine not only his direct allusions, such as the image of a banjo or the word “opera”, but also the structural similarities of his paintings with musical composition. Evoking the riffs of jazz and the samples of hip-hop, Basquiat uses self-appropriation, in the form of Xerox, in his works. “He samples his own compositions and creates a call and response between them,” says Desmarais, the museum’s chief curator.
In 1979, while still a teenager, Basquiat heard of the upcoming Canal Zone Party, a showcase for graffiti crew Fab 5 in midtown Manhattan, and arrived just as organizers were setting up shop. . “This young, handsome black kid walks in and says, ‘I want to be a part of this too!’ ” remembers Michael Holman, who organized the event with hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy and others. “We had no idea who he was, but he was charming and so sure of himself that we we said sure.” Handed over a can of spray paint, Basquiat began putting his own spin on the decor, and others quickly recognized his work as that of graffiti duo Samo, whose tags stood out on the Lower East Side. .
Before the party was over, Basquiat asked Holman if he wanted to start a band. “At that time in New York, we all wanted to be artists, but if you were an artist, you always had to be in a band,” says Holman, who had played with the Tubes, a San Francisco rock band known for his over-the-top stage shows. “Because that’s how we picked up girls. That’s how you got fucked. You had to be in a group. Everyone was,” he adds, checking the names of George Condo, Robert Longo and James Nares.
Basquiat and Holman began recruiting other members the same night. “We decided early on that you had to be cool, you had to look good, but you couldn’t be a formally trained musician,” says Holman. “We didn’t want that baggage in our group.
“We were going to approach the music as a sound sculpture,” he continues, citing avant-garde composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen as influences. The band would find unconventional ways to play instruments – removing tape from a drumhead, running a metal file over electric guitar strings – making music with random objects, and using Basquiat’s poetry as lyrics. Basquiat named the group Gray, after Grey’s Anatomy, the classic medical textbook he was referring to for his figuration.
Although several years younger than his bandmates, Basquiat was the obvious, if unofficial, leader. “Jean was a kind and generous person, but he was also super cool, and that was more important,” Holman says. “You didn’t try to ask him to lower his ‘hip’.” The artist, he says, “had the last word on everything”.
As an example, Holman recalls a gig at the Mudd Club, an underground music venue. The bandmates – minus Basquiat – spent the afternoon constructing an elaborate set: one member had to sit in a hole in the stage with only their head visible; two more were to be tied to scaffolding overhead at 45 degree angles; and a fourth would be positioned so high that only its legs would be visible.
When Basquiat arrived in time for the sound check, he took a look at Holman’s design, then walked out. He returned a few minutes later dragging a large open wooden crate. “He throws the crate on stage. He hugs his body in – he barely fits – pulls his synthesizer with him and smiles,” Holman says. “He finds this thing that not only worked with the sculpture, but made him the center of attention. He was inside the whole gig.
Although Gray played experimental, industrial-sounding music, Basquiat’s painting is mostly associated with jazz, and Desmarais says he was also influenced by classical, Mississippi Delta blues, and hip-hop. He had a collection of some 3,000 records. Her interest in music was, she says, not just as a “soundtrack to her life,” but also as an intrinsic channel for her thoughts on race.
“Basquiat repeatedly expressed his disappointment that there were not enough black heroes represented in the canon of art history,” notes Desmarais. “When you see his paintings of black musicians, you can see that he is celebrating the legacy of these incredible geniuses, making them visible in art history. You can see in many of these paintings, especially of musicians jazz and bebop like Charlie Parker, how he identified with them as a black artist who himself constantly faced racism Many musicians would play in jazz clubs and then could not sit in restaurants or use the bathroom Basquiat was one of the most famous artists of his time and couldn’t take a taxi into town.
Basquiat left Gray in his early twenties when his career as a painter caught fire. But Holman continued to record a connection between his bandmate’s music and his art. “His later work had this ‘ignorance,'” he says, using jazz slang for something that breaks the rules and shouldn’t work but does work anyway, “this deconstruction, this humor, this brutality, this hand childlike, mixed in with things that aren’t supposed to be there, like recipes or a list of leeches on a board. It just drew her in. If there’s a common thread, it’s imagination by Basquiat.